Money & Business

Maine Lobstermen Soften Shell of Longstanding Antitrust Regulations

By / Jul 17, 2014 (iStock/Thinkstock)

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association says a decades-old consent decree regulating the group is out-of-date and limits the group’s ability to advocate for its members. With the Justice Department stepping aside, the association might just win that argument in a federal court.

A lot has changed in 56 years. One thing that hasn’t? The regulations that manage Maine’s iconic lobster industry.

The consent decree blocks the industry’s trade group from discussing with its members any issues affecting the supply of lobster in the state—and as a result, affecting the price distributors pay for said lobster. In other words, a lot of potential advocacy efforts, or even fishery management efforts, have been off-limits to the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA).

When the rules were enacted, in 1958, the goal was to prevent price-fixing, but the group says the efforts have gotten long in the too … er, claw, with a lawyer for the association, Mary Anne Mason, pointing out to the Portland Press Herald that antitrust laws have largely dealt with the issue.

“The decree itself has language that is more restrictive than the antitrust laws are themselves,” Mason, a lawyer with Crowell & Moring LLP, told the newspaper.

From Simmer to Boil

It’s proved a tough shell to crack over the years, but the MLA says now’s the time for the U.S. Department of Justice to take another look at the antitrust laws. The association has tried the tactic multiple times over the years, but this time, it looks like the DOJ is taking the bait.

According to the Bangor Daily News, the DOJ filed a brief in a legal case regarding the issue that implied it would not oppose MLA’s attempt to free itself from the consent decree. And with oral arguments expected in the case next week, it may be only a matter of time before the rule is a thing of the past.

Getting out of a Trap

For the association’s part, the move can’t come soon enough. MLA Executive Director Patrice McCarron says the restrictions are making it tough for the group to get involved with fishery-management plans at the state level and to advocate for the group’s members.

“We’re working with lobstermen on what we should do to stabilize the industry, and ideas on how to improve profitability,” McCarron told the Press Herald. “We don’t want anything to inhibit our ability to do that. Right now the MLA would be hard-pressed to champion those issues without worrying about starting to step on the boundaries of the consent decree.”

She notes that the trade group and its 1,200 members are dealing with lower price levels due to record catches—125.9 million pounds in 2013 alone, only slightly off the record: 127 million pounds in 2012. And while prices are “definitely improving,” McCarron says being able to play more of a role in the Maine’s Strategic Management Plans for Fisheries, as well as broader industry marketing efforts, could be a boon to the group’s members.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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